The fickle target audience for kidcentric entertainment can't really be held responsible for the fact that cuteness plays itself out, and for once it's not even the media itself that shoulders the bulk of the blame. No -- most often, the adults who prime these kids for stardom are the villains.
It's a fact that Ben Lee, former frontman of the now-defunct Australian teen band Noise Addict, takes seriously. One of the tracks on his second solo album, Something to Remember Me By, is a kid-celeb lament called "Household Name": "You're never quite so cute, and I should know/ Once puberty takes its toll/ And no one knew their whereabouts/ What they do or what they did/ Chew them up and spit them out/ Like all of the Cosby kids." Lee cites the various unhappy fates of '80s child sitcom stars to identify the more general practice of squeezing the youth and adorability out of our young idols, only to discard them when their voices change and their youthful sheen is dimmed by Clearasil. Lee has been in the public eye since he was 14, but Something to Remember Me By finds him aging gracefully. Though his own voice change must have occurred at some point along the way, his folky, prematurely world-weary sound and honest, unaffected meditations on love, friendship, and guitar have changed little since he first made college-radio waves with "I Wish I Was Him" (a song about being jealous of Evan Dando).
Lee's transition from teen prodigy to grown-up songwriter does seem kind of miraculous, though, when his situation is compared with that of a 14-year-old kid named Ben Kweller, whose rise to fame (or hype) was recently chronicled in a lengthy New Yorker profile (April 7). Kweller's band, Radish, had played a few bar mitzvahs and school dances before being swept up, with the help of some stage-parent maneuvering, into the world of industry machinations. (Not to mention the kind of skeptical exposure afforded by the New Yorker piece itself.) The article documents the manipulation of Radish in detail, and paints a queasy picture of pathetic adults trying to recast their own failed rock lives through a group of sincere, music-loving teens. The piece slyly exposes the contrast between what Ben and his bandmates think they're doing -- cutting a real record! playing real shows! hanging out with Tom Petty and Dr. Dre! -- and the plotting of sales angles by their handlers. When the band's producer -- who ends up getting scrapped halfway through the recording process -- compares young Ben to Shirley Temple ("Shirley Temple is a good vibe"), the contrast becomes even more blatant.
The enthusiasm of all the grown-ups who wanted to turn Radish into major-label sweethearts -- the parents, A&R scouts, producers, procurers, agents, and lawyers -- is, when compared to the simple enthusiasm of a teen-ager who just wants to rock, really depressing. The fact that Radish is just one more band whose musical influences begin and end with Nirvana becomes almost secondary. By the end of the New Yorker piece, it's hard not to root for Kweller despite realizing his doom as a youth commodity. Fame and royalties aside, a happier ending to the story might have had Kweller wising up and ditching all the vampires who surround him. Alas, this is reality.
The differences between Ben Lee and Ben Kweller can't necessarily be summed up with a big-label-equals-bad/small-label-equals-good dismissiveness, but the younger Ben should probably be heeding the words of the elder's "Household Name" right about now. All the industry hype that's focused on making his band teen sensations might also ensure that they never become anything else. If Lee's Something to Remember Me By proves that the youth-star cycle can be transcended with a minimum of fuss and without lurid headlines, Radish's story provides ample proof of how and why the same cycle continues to replenish itself year after year.
By Andi Zeisler